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I Get My Bicycle Fixed For 45 Cents, China Still Dirt Cheap For The Basics

I get a flat tire on my bicycle repaired for a ridiculously small amount of money. China is still a very cheap country to live in.

I woke up one morning to find that the rear wheel of my bicycle had gone completely flat. Grumble. So I left it behind as I traveled on to Hunan province with just my feet. Upon returning to Jiangsu I was craving my default mode of local transport. Now I only had a flat tire, I could have just fixed it myself, but why bother when there are people sitting out on the sidewalk whose job it is to do these things?

I wheeled the bike outside, found a misc repair man set up on the corner, and asked him if he could fix my flat. No problem.

This guy’s workshop consisted of what appeared to me to be a pile of junk. Rusted old parts, a ten speed tube, a busted up old tool box, and various grease, dirt, and grime caked tools were spread about in glorious dystrophy over a small section of the sidewalk. These de facto handy men are set up on just about every corner in residential working class China, and they are truly clutch when you have something you need fixed.

bicycle-repair-stand-china

The guy took my bike and began cranking on it immediately. He told me to come back later. I went and hung out in the back room of a friend’s outdoor shop that was nearby. A half hour later the repair man was at the door flanked by my now fixed bicycle.

He asked for three yuan.

I experienced an odd feeling that seldom arise in me: guilt. 47 cents seemed to be far too little money for a half hour of labor, a patch, and glue. But this was the price.

I am resolute about not tipping in country’s that don’t have the custom. Simply put, tipping out of bounds is a condescending act, and it’s often taken as an abject insult. In most of the world, service employees are paid by their employers, not directly from the customer. This seems to make sense, but USA culture teaches us that if we see a person working for us we should pay them extra money. (One of the stupidest customs on the planet.) In most of the world there is no differentiation between the labor of the dude that serves you at a restaurant and the dude who paves the road you drive on. Trying to get preferential treatment by flaunting your money and distributing under the table payouts isn’t called a tipping in most of the world, it’s called bribery.

But I still felt strangely odd about paying this guy such a ridiculously small amount of money. I have only felt this way a couple of times before — once was in India when a shoe repairman tried to charge me like 10 cents for his work. But respecting other people and cultures means doing things their way, even if it makes me feel like a choad.

I didn’t listen to my logic though. I handed over 5 yuan and told him to keep it. It then became clear that I had made a simple exchange awkward. The repair man didn’t really seem to know what to do for a moment, then reached into his pocket and fished me out my change.

Filed under: China, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3544 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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12 comments… add one

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  • Michael Crosby May 23, 2013, 2:02 am

    Interesting Wade. What do you do when you really want to show your appreciation?
    On a side note, I’m passing through Flagstaff AZ and go to this bar to get a bean burrito. $12. Man, I was pissed. Felt like an idiot and pissed at the same time.

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    • VagabondJourney May 24, 2013, 4:42 am

      In this instance I’m not so sure. What he did was so basic and ordinary that any ecstatic show of praise would only make me look like a moron. I guess just return to him again when anything else breaks that I don’t feel like fixing.

      Wow, that’s one expensive burrito. There’s maybe a reason why I get those $5 Subway sandwiches all the time when traveling in the USA 🙂

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      • Félix Gervais May 25, 2013, 11:19 am

        That, and the fact that they’re so damn delicious? 🙂 I spent 18 hours in Shanghai last week-end, and in that span of time had 24 inches of Subway deliciousness.

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        • VagabondJourney May 26, 2013, 4:43 am

          Yo, this is totally one of the perks of venturing into places like Shanghai and Beijing. Man, I’m going to have to come out and admit this: Subway is good . . . and cheap. Or maybe I’ve forgotten what other kinds of subs taste like being in China for so long 🙂

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          • mitchblatt May 26, 2013, 7:39 am

            Next time you’re in Shanghai, go to Sarnies. That’s a real sub place.

            Link Reply
            • VagabondJourney May 26, 2013, 7:48 am

              Will do.

              Link Reply
  • mikecrosby May 23, 2013, 1:02 am

    Interesting Wade. What do you do when you really want to show your appreciation?
    On a side note, I’m passing through Flagstaff AZ and go to this bar to get a bean burrito. $12. Man, I was pissed. Felt like an idiot and pissed at the same time.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 24, 2013, 3:42 am

      In this instance I’m not so sure. What he did was so basic and ordinary that any ecstatic show of praise would only make me look like a moron. I guess just return to him again when anything else breaks that I don’t feel like fixing.

      Wow, that’s one expensive burrito. There’s maybe a reason why I get those $5 Subway sandwiches all the time when traveling in the USA 🙂

      Link Reply
      • Félix Gervais May 25, 2013, 10:19 am

        That, and the fact that they’re so damn delicious? 🙂 I spent 18 hours in Shanghai last week-end, and in that span of time had 24 inches of Subway deliciousness.

        Link Reply
        • VagabondJourney May 26, 2013, 3:43 am

          Yo, this is totally one of the perks of venturing into places like Shanghai and Beijing. Man, I’m going to have to come out and admit this: Subway is good . . . and cheap. Or maybe I’ve forgotten what other kinds of subs taste like being in China for so long 🙂

          Link Reply
          • mitchblatt May 26, 2013, 6:39 am

            Next time you’re in Shanghai, go to Sarnies. That’s a real sub place.

            Link Reply
            • VagabondJourney May 26, 2013, 6:48 am

              Will do.

              Link Reply